When we slow down and really pay attention, something intriguing tends to happen.
Then, as this interior conversation deepens, it often expands beyond the self. What begins within wants to move without.
Just when we mean, for example, to “live a quiet life,” an introverted life of “mildness and meditation”—as Mary Oliver says in “Spring” (West Wind, 1997)—we suddenly find ourselves out and about, striding “abroad in the cross current conversation of the world,” as Whyte puts it in “Learning to Walk” (River Flow).
Elsewhere (“Second Life,” Pilgrim, 2012), he elaborates: “we sometimes / like to walk alone, / open to the silent revelation,” while at other times we “stop and gather / and share everything / as dark comes in, / telling the story / of a day’s accidental / beauty.”
It is this conversation, this intercourse as they called it in the old days, between the inner and outer worlds, between the yin and yang of you and me, between contemplation and action, that ultimately makes us generative, like animals in springtime.
This, at least, is what I heard in Mary Oliver’s poem “Spring” (see below), which we used in our most recent Lectio Poetica gathering.
One morning, she observes two birds plunging downward through the air, joined “like a tuft of fire / a wheel of fire / a love knot / out of control.” Fulfilling the urgent impulse to be generative, to reproduce, right here and now, no matter what they may have had in mind before the sudden arrival of spring swept through their senses like a storm.
And in their coupling—their avian, aerial “conversation”—she sees an image of herself, “as though I had shaken my arms and lo! they were wings.”
She had intended to live a quiet life, to hide out in the woods and fields of Provincetown, Massachusetts, to experience the joy and beauty of nature, to kiss the trees, and to tap a few careful words of praise on her typewriter. Like the Buddha, who comes into her mind as she watches the birds and muses on her life, apparently Oliver never really wanted to enter the cross current conversation of the world. She loved the green garden of her solitude.
“If you have ever gone to the woods with me,” she says with, I imagine, a crooked smile, “I must love you very much” (“How I Go to the Woods,” Swan, 2010).
Nevertheless, like the Buddha, she also felt the natural impulse to be generative, to rise at last and walk “the long dusty road without end.” Into the heart of the world.
Like the Buddha, “when he opened his hands to the world” instead of remaining isolated at the foot of the Bodhi tree, she accepted her soul’s urgent invitation to engage intimately with others, to propagate, as it were, the illumination she had discovered—or received—in silence.
When she writes a poem like this one, she does not slip it into a drawer to lie still and rest.
Rather, she slips it into an envelope or an email to her publisher, to go forth and reproduce. Despite a powerful inclination to retire from the world, Oliver herself goes forth time and time again to teach, to do public readings, to stand before noisy and adoring crowds, even, on occasion, to grant an interview.
Though she has never given birth to biological children, poems are her literary offspring, destined to live well beyond the brief span of her own life. We, too, are her progeny, those of us who know and repeat her “careful words” tapped out with such love they simply cannot be contained, like the profligate passions of spring.
It is love, finally, that draws all of us out of our aloneness, fired with the primal urge to merge, in life-giving ways, with the world—to be generative, like the birds, like Mary Oliver, like the Buddha. “To invest one’s substance,” as psychologist John Kotre says, “in forms of life and work that will outlive the self” (Outliving the Self: How We Live on in Future Generations, 1996),
This spring, therefore, you might pause for a moment and ask yourself—as I ask myself—what passion urges you to emerge from the comfort of your cocoon and join the cross current conversation of the world?
What will it take, ultimately, for you to plunge headlong into your “one, wild and precious life,” a wheel of fire blazing out of control, to set the world aflame with your love?
—Jay E. Valusek
fell down the side of the maple tree
like a tuft of fire
a wheel of fire
a love knot
out of control as they plunged through the air
pressed against each other
and I thought
how I meant to live a quiet life
how I meant to live a life of mildness and meditation
tapping the careful words against each other
and I thought--
as though I were suddenly spinning, like a bar of silver
as though I had shaken my arms and lo! they were wings--
of the Buddha
when he rose from his green garden
when he rose in his powerful ivory body
when he turned to the long dusty road without end
when he covered his hair with ribbons and the petals of flowers
when he opened his hands to the world.